Drugs, Health, and Rights

From The Colorado Freedom Report:

Drugs, Health, and Rights: An Exchange

The following exchange consists of e-mails sent yesterday by “Rafaela” of Brazil and me regarding drug prohibition, individual rights, and health policy. –Ari Armstrong, January 7, 2008

Hi Mr Armstrong,

I’ve recently read an old article of yours, about Dr. Jeffrey Schaler’s book “Addiction is a Choice,” …and found many interesting points of view regarding drug use and the prohibition of it, but on a few portions of the article raised some doubts for me.

From what I understood, ultimately you are against drug prohibition, as it is an individual choice from the individual that does not affect others, and even compare today’s drug war to an Inquisition of sorts, where people who defend prohibition are mostly driven by a misguided sense of morality.

Now, I don’t really have a completely formed opinion on whether drugs should be legalized or not (which is one of the reasons why I enjoyed the opinions in your article). I’m a doctor from Brazil, and the main problem i had with this line of thought is that in my opinion, this is a choice that does affect others. I don’t know much about the US medical system, but in Brazil, we have two types of systems: Health Plans (which work exactly like in your country, i’m sure), and the Unified Health System, financiated by the federal and local governments, which provides assistance to the less privileged in all complexities, to simple consults to complex surgeries. Now, wouldn’t the increase of substance use bring on a variety of health problems (such as an increase in the incidence of Hep C, HIV and other illnessess not directly related to the use of IV drugs) on these individuals that would ultimately affect the collective health system? I strongly believe in the individual choice, but sometimes the State does interfere in matters of public health in ways that i don’t find completely wrong (for example, there’s a tropical disease transmitted trough mosquito bites, those were attracted to still waters, there was a strong State campain against reservatoires of stillwater in individuals homes).

Forgive me if I haven’t made a lot of sense while writing this, or misunderstood your point, but English isn’t my first language, and such mistakes often happen. And I’m also sorry for the length of this.

Thank you very much for your attention,

Ari Armstrong Replies

I’ll start with the easiest, most empirical matter first. Would the re-legalization of drugs increase the use of infected needles, and thus increase the number of illnesses? My answer is no: the re-legalization of drugs (and clean needles) would reduce the use of infected needles in favor of clean needles. But there is a broader point: the prohibition of drugs has led to the use of more concentrated drugs, which are often smoked or injected. I believe that, with an end of prohibition, people who use drugs would tend to use them orally more often, which would reduce the number of needles used.

Now for the deeper political issues. It is NOT my view that drugs should be re-legalized because drug use “does not affect others.” That is not the correct political standard. Plenty of things that impact others should be outlawed, such as assault, rape, and homicide. Then again, plenty of things that impact others should not be outlawed. For example, if a father eats a poor diet and refuses to exercise, that will impact his children, but diet and exercise should not be matters of law.

The proper political standard is individual rights. We have the right to control our own bodies and resources, provided that we respect the equal rights of others. Quite simply, there is nothing about drug use per se that violates rights. Now, some people who use drugs (including the legal drug alcohol) also commit criminal acts, but they should be punished for those criminal acts, not for the drug use. Obviously, drugs, just like many other objects, can be used responsibly or irresponsibly. The use of marijuana or opiates to ease physical pain can be quite morally proper. Any drug addiction, just like any sort of psychological addiction, is harmful. The proper purpose of government is to protect individual rights, not force people to otherwise behave as they should.

But don’t irresponsible behaviors, such as drug abuse, cause more health problems? No doubt. But that is a political problem only under socialized medicine. If socialized medicine justifies drug prohibition (which, by the way, does not eliminate but increases related health problems), then it also justifies diet control, mandatory exercise, the violation of property rights (such as a ban on unhealthy restaurants), censorship, and compelled health education.

As Lin Zinser and Pual Hsieh, MD, write: “A final (and often unacknowledged) consequence of government interference in medicine is that it leads to violations of individual rights in other areas of life, such as violations of the right to free speech and mandates regarding what people may and may not eat. When the government pays our health care bills, in order to save money, it inevitably demands greater control in how we lead our daily lives.”

The answer to the problems generated by socialized medicine is not to impose political controls on other parts of our lives, but rather to establish liberty in medicine (as Zinser and Hsieh eloquently argue).

Finally, I would like to address another example you offer in your e-mail. What about people who allow mosquito infestations on their property? As an aside, I am curious: I have often heard the claim that DDT bans have greatly exacerbated the problems of mosquito-born illnesses; do you know if this is the case in Brazil? But on to the example as it stands. A good argument could be made that allowing a mosquito infestation violates the rights of others by subjecting them to dangerous diseases, and thus government intervention of some sort is justified. But I fear that the problem requires the expertise of somebody who knows more about legal theory. Regardless of the legal issues, certainly a voluntary effort to eradicate mosquito infestations and educate people of their dangers would be appropriate. More broadly, what Brazil needs is economic freedom and secure property rights, so that its people can generate the wealth required to solve this and other life-threatening problems.

I hope that my response has been of some interest to you.


Ari Armstrong

Vet Seeks Return of Medical Marijuana

I thought this was a fun media release:




CENTENNIAL, COLORADO—Today the Arapahoe District Attorney dismissed criminal charges against Kevin Dickes, a State-certified medical marijuana patient and Desert Storm vet. The case had garnered widespread media attention. Monday, Mr. Dickes and his lawyer Robert J. Corry, Jr. will file a motion for return of medical marijuana after today’s dismissal of felony charges. The motion will be filed on December 17, 2007 at 11:00 a.m. in Arapahoe District Court. The Colorado Constitution provides an exception to criminal laws regarding marijuana for registered Medical Marijuana patients.

“This is a victory for compassion and for the voters of Colorado,” said Mr. Corry, “We commend the District Attorney for doing the right thing and dismissing criminal charges, now Mr. Dickes needs his medicine back unharmed as the Colorado Constitution requires, or just compensation thereof.”

Dickes, who suffers from chronic vascular disease and extreme pain from combat injuries suffered during the first Gulf War in 1991, had a physician’s recommendation and a State-issued registry card for medical marijuana.

WHAT: Kevin Dickes and his attorney, Robert Corry, Jr., will file a motion for return of medical marijuana.

WHEN: 11:00 a.m., Monday, December 17, 2007.

WHERE: Arapahoe District Court, 7325 S. Potomac Street, Centennial, CO

Drug War Deaths

After writing my last post against libertarianism, I’m going to join many libertarians in criticizing the drug war. However, my criticism is not rooted in the standard libertarian argument that people should do whatever they feel like doing, such as using drugs. Instead, my argument rests on the moral and political theory of individual rights.

In brief, people survive by reason, and the sole legitimate function of government is to protect people’s rights to control their own property and lives, as consistent with the rights of others, so that people can apply their minds to the tasks of living. It is true that drug abuse can impede a person’s ability to reason, but this is not for the government to decide. After all, many drugs also have legitimate medical and personal uses, and all sorts of other objects and activities can also impede reason (television abuse comes to mind). The government cannot force people to reason, it can only stop people from using force against others. A government that acts beyond the protection of individual rights is not in principle bound by any constraints.

Moreover, most of the problems associated with illegal drugs are caused by the drug war, not by the drugs themselves. Problems ranging from black-market violence to poisonous drugs are caused by prohibition.

Radly Balko describes another problem with the drug war: it results in police corruption and the abuse of police powers. Balko writes:

It was one year ago this week that narcotics officers in Atlanta, Georgia broke into the home of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston.

They had earlier arrested a man with a long rap sheet on drug charges. That man told the police officers that they’d find a large stash of cocaine in Johnston’s home. When police forced their way into Johnston’s home, she met them holding a rusty old revolver, fearing she was about to be robbed. The police opened fire, and killed her.

Shortly after the shooting, the police alleged that they had paid an informant to buy drugs from Ms. Johnston’s home. They said she fired at them first, and wounded two officers. And they alleged they found marijuana in her home.

We now know that these were all lies. In fact, everything about the Kathryn Johnston murder was corrupt. The initial arrest of the ex-con came via trumped-up charges. The police then invented an informant for the search warrant, and lied about overseeing a drug buy from Johnston’s home.

Ms. Johnston didn’t actually wound any of the officers. They were wounded by fragments of ricochet from their own storm of bullets. And there was no marijuana. Once they realized their mistake, the officers handcuffed Ms. Johnston and left her to bleed and die on the floor of her own home while they planted marijuana in her basement.

We now know that it was routine for Atlanta’s narcotics officers to lie on drug warrants. We know that judges in the city rather systematically approved those warrants with no scrutiny at all…

Will the murder of a 92-year-old woman at the hands of police cause the drug warriors to rethink their tactics or goals?